“Our luck was in today”.
So said James McClean, the architect of Wigan Athletic’s first win since October 25th. McClean’s cross led to a Leeds own goal after 11 minutes, then he sealed the win with a powerful finish in the 82nd minute.
Mackay got his tactics right this time around. He brought in James Tavernier in his best position as right wing back, with Andrew Taylor on the opposite flank and a central defensive trio of James Perch, Ivan Ramis and Rob Kiernan. He stuck with the experienced trio of Don Cowie, Chris McCann and Ben Watson in midfield, with McClean and Marc-Antoine Fortune upfront.
Nobody looked happier with yesterday’s win than the beleaguered manager, Malky Mackay. It was a welcome surprise to see him opt for a 3-5-2 formation, after his sterile tactics in previous matches. Fans were wincing at the prospect of him playing with just one striker, but the change in formation allowed him to play with two, whilst providing more defensive stability.
This time Mackay fielded three of Uwe Rosler’s signings in his starting lineup, having brought in Tavernier to join his trusted lieutenants, Cowie and Taylor. He boldly left out the underperforming FA Cup winning trio of Emmerson Boyce, Callum McManaman and Shaun Maloney.
Maloney might well be leaving the club over the coming weeks, as Latics are likely to want to cash in with his contract expiring at the end of the season. Boyce has been a wonderful club servant and played in Wigan’s most famous victories, but has just not looked the same player this season. At 35 he is now unlikely to be able to command a regular place in the starting lineup.
Ironically McManaman was left out when Mackay opted for the formation that suits him best. Playing wide on the flank makes it too easy for the opposition to snuff him out of the game with multiple markers. In a 3-5-2 system he has the freedom to wander, making it hard for the opposition defence to control him. The young player has received criticism over recent weeks from fans who have thought he has not been sufficiently involved in the game. However, unlike with Rosler, who would often only play him for an hour, he is now expected for play the full ninety.
Mackay is the third manager who has tried to play with the two wide men – McManaman and McClean – in the same lineup to find out it does not work. Of the two, McManaman is the more clinical finisher, although McClean hit home his goal with aplomb yesterday. Would Mackay consider playing the two together as strikers in a 3-5-2 formation, rather than as orthodox wingers?
Even in the Martinez days of 3-5-2 (or a modified 3-4-3), Latics played with at least one target man. In the last season in the Premier League it was Arouna Kone and Franco di Santo before that. Yesterday Mackay had Fortune playing there. Moreover over the past months Wigan’s defenders and goalkeeper have grown accustomed to using the centre forward as an outlet for hopeful long punts. But yesterday saw Ramis and Kiernan restored to the centre of defence and both are capable of resisting the hoof and playing the ball out from the back.
At last Wigan’s luck has changed for the better. In so many matches this season they have done enough to win, but thrown it away through defensive laxness or unlucky goals. This time around the remodeled defence held firm during the onslaught from the home team.
They say that one swallow does not make a summer. But at least fans can now see some light on the horizon. The coming weeks are going to continue to be a rollercoaster ride, both in terms of performance on the pitch and in changes in personnel over the period of the transfer window.
A win can do wonders for a team’s confidence and the players will now be looking forward to Tuesday’s home game with Sheffield Wednesday. They will hope that the ill-luck that has dogged them so much this season has gone for good.